The leader of the main Syrian opposition group in exile said his country, after the demise of the Bashar Assad regime, would curtail ties with Iran, its closest ally.
Syria’s future lies with other Sunni-majority states, and not with the Shi’ite theocracy in Tehran, Burhan Ghalioun, the head of the Istanbul-based Syrian National Council, said in an interview on Friday.
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“Our future is truly tied to the Arab world and the Gulf in particular,” Ghalioun told The Wall Street Journal in an interview in France, adding that Damascus would also cut ties with the Lebanon-based Hezbollah.
“As our relations with Iran change, so too will our relationship with Hezbollah. Hezbollah after the fall of the Syrian regime will not be the same. Lebanon should not be used as it was used in the Assad era as an arena to settle political scores,” Ghalioun told the paper.
“The current relationship between Syria and Iran is abnormal,” he said. “Syria is the center of the Arab Orient. It cannot live outside its relationship with the Arabian Peninsula, the Gulf countries, Egypt and others.”
Damascus has had close ties with Tehran since the early years of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which was founded in 1979.
“There will be no special relationship with Iran. This is the core issue – the military alliance,” Ghalioun said.
“Breaking the exceptional relationship means breaking the strategic military alliance. We do not mind economic relations.”
Violence continued in Syria over the weekend with at least 23 people reported killed, and activists said the death toll in eight months of unrest was approaching 4,600.
On Saturday, Hezbollah struck back at Ghalioun’s remarks, reporting on its English- language Al-Manar news website that “the head of the so-called ‘Syrian opposition’ outside Syria stated... that his pro-Western group aims at cutting Damascus’s military ties with Iran and stopping the backing of the resistance of Hezbollah.
“Syria, along with Iran, Hezbollah, and the Palestinian resistance, is the main obstacle en route to a new US-Israeli-fashioned Middle East,” the website said.
“Israel sought in 2006 to crush Hezbollah, but it was destined for defeat. Iran has been under heavy pressure to stop its peaceful nuclear program, but more than 30 years of sanctions and wars couldn’t bring the Islamic Republic to its knees.
Also in 2008-2009, Israel tried to finish off the Palestinian resistance movement Hamas in Gaza, but the Zionist entity was also destined to fail. Syria, for its part, is the main supporter of these resistance movements and probably the last Arab country to still consider Israel as the sole enemy of this region’s countries.”
The Syrian National Council is the most prominent of a smattering of opposition groups operating outside of Syria. The group has won praise for its relative inclusiveness – its leadership is mostly Sunni Arab but includes some Christians and Kurds – but critics say that the group’s apparent diversity is little more than a front for an Islamist agenda. Roughly half of the SNC’s 19-member leadership reportedly identifies either with the Muslim Brotherhood or with fundamentalist Salafist streams of political Islam.
In his interview, Ghalioun did not go into likely relations with Hamas, which, like Hezbollah, is an extremist group closely allied with Tehran. He said, however, that the SNC had links to the PLO, of which Hamas has never been a member.
Regional sources told Reuters on Friday that Hamas was quietly reducing its presence in its long-term Damascus headquarters as Assad’s future looks uncertain. The sources said the Hamas delegation in the Syrian capital, which once numbered hundreds of Palestinian officials and their relatives, had shrunk to a few dozen. In Beirut, a Hamas representative said the group was “still committed to supporting Assad.”
Ghalioun said the council had sought political and financial support from the Arab League, the EU, Turkey and Western powers.
“We asked to apply pressure on Russia and China, and to make use of all civilian protection measures. This is why [French] Foreign Minister [Alain] Juppé called for a humanitarian corridor [into Syria],” Ghalioun said.
“Our main objective is finding mechanisms to protect civilians and stop the killing machine. If a humanitarian corridor is able to achieve this, then that is important,” he said.
A humanitarian corridor and a buffer zone “doesn’t mean military intervention to topple the regime,” Ghalioun said.
“This is different than the organized military intervention that happened in Iraq for regime change. We count on Syrians to bring down the Syrian regime. We want the international community to stop the oppression of the Syrian people.”
If Russia could be convinced that Assad’s opponents and the West were not considering military intervention in Syria, as NATO did in Libya, Moscow might be persuaded not to use its UN Security Council veto to block humanitarian intervention.
But Ghalioun also mentioned a no-fly zone, which implies a degree of military intervention.
“We will meet with the foreign minister of Turkey [Ahmet Davutoglu], who is thinking of this with the Europeans to discuss the developments in what he mentioned as a no-fly zone,” Ghalioun said.
“Assad got several offers of asylum,” he told the paper.
“The Arab League and Turkey offered to help find him a safe haven. It is clear that he wants to continue and I believe he is not mature and he doesn’t have a grasp on reality. He is delusional.”